In 2008, critically acclaimed blockbusters like The Dark Knight and WALL-E were left off the Oscars' Best Picture ballot, despite being considered by many to be among the best films of the year. The outrage surrounding those high profile snubs famously influenced the Academy Awards to expand the Best Picture field to 10 nominees; today, it is a sliding scale where anywhere between five and 10 movies can be nominated. It was an effort by the organization to invite more commercially successful titles to the party, and perhaps increasing viewership of the televised ceremony.
Arguably, the experiment has been a mixed success. It's true that several box office smashes like Avatar, Toy Story 3, Inception, and Gravity all competed for the Academy's top honor, but there have also been a couple of years where the Oscars reaffirmed the notion they were out of touch with the public. In 2011, the average gross for a nominee was $69.8 million (the lowest since 2006), and this year's Oscars broadcast saw a significant decrease in the ratings - believed in part to be caused by the mediocre box office performance of the eight nominees.
It's becoming obvious that the Academy needs to do some retooling ahead of the 2015 awards season, so what can they do? According to THR, several Academy members are making a strong push for a return to the old five nominee rule. A formal proposal has not yet been made, but there is a chance that it becomes a topic of discussion when the Academy governors meet on March 24.
Those in favor of the move state that having a wider pool of Best Picture contenders waters down the prestige of a nomination (which was a deciding factor for the adaptation of the sliding scale). However, there are sure to be an equal amount of detractors who fear that limiting the total number of nominees will only cause the TV ratings to continue to go down. Some have mentioned that the record-breaking success of Clint Eastwood's American Sniper helped bring in audiences who otherwise might not have watched.
On one hand, going back to five nominees might not be a bad idea. As awards season goes on and the Oscar precursors are handed out, the race for Best Picture becomes tighter and tighter, and by the time the Academy Awards roll around there are only a select few who have a legitimate shot (think Birdman vs. Boyhood). Nobody really expected Sniper to win this year, so fans of that film were probably discouraged from watching. This would also eliminate the need for studios to put together fruitless campaigns for contenders that have no chance.
While making Best Picture a more select club could cause the competition to be more exciting, it also presents a handful of problems the Academy should consider. First, this reeks of a knee-jerk reaction to a down year for the ceremony. In 2012 and 2013, several lucrative offerings scored Best Picture nominations, and as a result the telecast saw higher ratings. This isn't to say the Oscars should scout the top of the yearly box office charts for their honorees, but having popular directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino (who all sat 2014 out) in the game certainly help. Sometimes, it's all circumstantial.
Furthermore, while the Oscars still haven't truly warmed up to awarding genre titles, the expanded category has been beneficial in another regard. When the label is bestowed to a smaller film, interest in it increases, leading to more exposure for a movie few would have paid attention to otherwise. For example, there's a chance that Whiplash - one of the most beloved films of the year - would have slid under the radar if it were not for its Best Picture nomination. This change would certainly make it difficult for these titles to compete with more established award circuit talent, as the race would become much more cut-throat.
It should be noted that it isn't a given this will happen yet; it's merely something Academy members are interested in exploring. As they meet to discuss how to "fix" the Oscars, there will be many watchful eyes interested in their final decision, since it could have a tremendous impact on the many Oscar campaigns that studios are starting to put together. It'll be fascinating to see what happens.